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Sustainability: What's the End Game?


By Ian Edwards

Imagine that Buckminster Fuller is finally satisfied that the world works “for 100 percent of humanity.” What is systematically, empirically, foundationally different? Consider a world that has redressed, in unimpeachably proven ways, the vivid warnings of conservationist Rachel Carson and systems designer Dana Meadows. What is happening now at the intersection of societal growth and our finite environment that inspires confidence that one is not undermining the other?

If we have joined industrialist Ray Anderson at the top of Mt. Sustainability, “a mountain higher than Everest … that symbolizes zero footprint – zero environmental impact,” how has business, collectively and around the globe, already changed so it does no harm?

This ought not be an exercise in writing science fiction.

Sustainability execution today is undermined by a lack of language that speaks to a time when sustainability is achieved. As much as sustainability is mainstream, it’s unclear on outcomes. We might embrace the process of becoming sustainable, but it convinces neither the critics nor the impatient that it is taking us somewhere. Counting and abating greenhouse gas emissions is a very different process than reacting to a world that no longer permits the burning of fossil fuels -- anywhere.

What is sustainability’s end game and when, if ever, can we relax?

“Hardly anyone envisions a sustainable world as one that would be wonderful to live in,” Meadows said in a 1994 speech presented at what was the third conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics.

“The best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe. We promise survival and not much more. That is a failure of vision.”

A mid-course check after more than 20 years suggests we have made little progress in changing the doomsday narrative. Recent news talks of the unavoidable impacts of human-made climate change, regardless of emissions pacts ratified (or not) in Paris this year; headlines lament the hottest year in recorded history in 2014 and predict a mass extinction of marine life from human activities.

In the 1990s, the oft-cited goal was a world where sustainability was integrated – where it just happened without special consideration. If that is an end game, then sustainability is far from successful. If sustainability is first achieved by doing less harm, we can raise our hands in victory – then ask, “What’s next?”

The 2014 book "Creating a Sustainable and Desirable Future" collected the viewpoints of 45 leaders in sustainability, including futuristic views of a world already made more sustainable. So-called “future histories” are accounts from a time yet to be -- where we aren’t just envisioning potential outcomes but reacting to those that are already happening.

I have begun to ask the questions more bluntly: “What’s the end game? When do we get there? Are you confident we are on that path?”

Author and speaker Bob Willard points to the science-based environmental and social goals outlined in the open source initiative Future-Fit Business Benchmark as provable ways to secure sustainability. For example, in this new world, all physical resources will be sourced in ways that have no negative social or environmental impact.

When? “At current course and speed, never,” he said, not at all confident that we are on the path toward a sustainable future.

“Unless we change the path and pace, the economy and human society will transcend planetary boundaries, and we will go out of business,” Willard explains. “Sustainability efforts by companies and governments lack a sense of urgency.”

“The end game for me is one where humans live in balance with the carrying capacity of the Earth's ecosystem," says Peter ter Weeme, a Delhi-based sustainability consultant and principal at Junxion Strategy.

Among the many explicit measures he’d look for are: reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide below 400 parts per million by 2030; a low water risk index for 80 percent of the world's countries; and a minimum Human Development Index threshold of 0.70 or above for everyone globally. However, he’s also not confident we’ll get there.

“Everything I read suggests we are on a collision course,” he explains. “CO2 concentrations are on an inexorable rise. Biodiversity is dropping precipitously. Seas are acidic, denuded of life and rising. Food systems are under major stress. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider at alarming rates. Many indicators of human health and development are stagnant. The clock is ticking and beyond a couple of decades from now, we will have reached a point of no return.”

Another sustainability consultant is more optimistic and has a more near-term perspective.

“Today, we have rapidly growing awareness that entities have footprints with broad ecological and social impacts,” says Mike Wallace, managing director at BrownFlynn. “In the future, we’ll put those footprints together to compare it to the actual global carrying capacity of the planet. That’s not happening yet. Companies like Philips and Puma have attempted to show us the way, but the markets aren’t yet fully recognizing or rewarding these precedent-setting steps in transparency.”

Wallace is 80 percent certain this level of clarity will happen as soon as 2020, and when it does “we will have a greater sense of the importance or lack of importance of the issues we measure and report.”

Backcasting” is a helpful tool to engineer our desired outcomes. In your version of world already made sustainable, what has happened to get us there? When? What makes you certain? Is it wonderful?

Discuss it on social media or take my qualitative survey.

Image credit: Flickr/Moyan Brenn

Ian Edwards is a sustainability consultant based in New York City and graduates in May from Bard’s MBA in Sustainability.

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